TOLEDO, Ohio - A gorilla and a tiger on Valium. A swamp monkey on anti-psychotic medicine.
Zoos prescribe drugs to anxious animals
The Toledo Zoo, like many other zoos around the nation, is increasingly using antidepressants and tranquilizers to manage their animals' behavioral problems.
Sometimes, zoo keepers use drugs to calm down animals when they are at odds or when they are moved into a new enclosure.
The zoo's zebras were given an anti-psychotic drug that is used to treat schizophrenia in humans when the zebras were being moved into the zoo's new Africa exhibit.
That's because zebras will chase anything new or unfamiliar in their environment, said Wynona Shellabarger, the zoo's veterinarian.
"It would be silly to try an introduction without some type of intervention," she told The Blade in a story published Monday.
The zebras were put on the drug haloperidol again when an impala in the same exhibit gave birth. "Zebra are known to kill baby impala. That's just a natural behavior," Shellabarger said.
The same drug, though, didn't work on a swamp monkey named Maxine who was fighting with her daughter. The zoo tried the drug on Maxine over the objections of the monkeys' keeper.
It first made the monkey groggy, but a reduced dose didn't stop her attacks so Maxine's daughter was separated from the group. "It's not a foolproof thing," Shellabarger said.
Some veterinarians who specialize in animal behavior and work with zoos are wary about haloperidol, which was used on the zebras.
Laurie Bergman, a veterinarian with the University of California at Davis, said haloperidol is a drug of last resort.
"That's in many ways a sloppy drug," she said. "You have a lot of risk of side effects and also overall repression of normal behavior."
Animal behavior expert and veterinarian Kathy Houpt of Cornell University said there are ethical questions about withholding drugs when treatment is necessary.
"It's unethical not to treat them with drugs if it will make them not as anxious or not as aggressive. You're making an animal feel more contented," she said.
Toledo Zoo's gorilla keeper Char Petiniot said she would rather see animals living drug-free whenever possible.
One of the zoo's gorilla's was given daily doses of an anti-depressant often used for premenstrual tension. She had been attacking other gorillas just before her menstrual cycles.
A month after she started on Prozac, she was reintroduced to her group without trouble.
After the gorilla gave birth, she was taken off the drug. "She got kind of psychotic on us," Petiniot said.
The gorilla was put back on antidepressants and remains on them.
The zoo used an anti-depressant to ease an Amur tiger who was upset when keepers hung a cloth in his enclosure to keep him out of the sun.
A low dose of Valium for two days turned the tiger into his old self.
"It was terrifying for him," said Randi Meyerson, the zoo's mammal curator. "He even stopped eating."
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